California officials are re-opening the investigation into the 2009 killing of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old Black man, on a train platform in Oakland, amid a national reckoning on police violence.
The fatal New Year’s Day shooting was one of the first incidents of police brutality caught on video, and a significant moment in Bay Area history. The footage showing a transit police officer firing into Grant’s back as he laid on the ground led to police accountability protests across the country. The case also gained international recognition in Ryan Coogler’s 2014 film Fruitvale Station, named after the site of Grant’s death.
The Bay Area Rapid Transit (Bart) officer who shot Grant in the back, Johannes Mehserle, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in a rare criminal trial over a killing by law enforcement. He was sentenced to two years in prison and released in 2011.
“It feels good, but we’re not holding our breath,” said Cephus “Uncle Bobby” X Johnson, Oscar Grant’s uncle, told the Guardian after the district attorney’s announcement. “We’ve been doing this for many years and we’ve seen the system break many hearts.”
The Alameda county district attorney’s office originally charged Mehserle with murder, but the jury in Los Angeles – where the trial was moved, after Mehserle’s attorneys asked for a change of venue because of the case’s publicity in Oakland – found Mehserle guilty of the lesser charge.
While Mehserle cannot be tried again for the same crime, prosecutors can look at the role other officers at the scene played in Grant’s killing. Grant’s family and community activists have called for the case to be re-examined.
“I urge a decision to be made quickly. We should not have to wait another 11 years,” said the Rev Wanda Johnson, Grant’s mother, during a Monday press conference in front of the train station.
“If our judicial system continues to not honor their word then we will continue to be out here and remind the world of how our judicial system is continuing to fail people of color,” Johnson continued.
“We have listened closely to the requests of the family of Oscar Grant,” Nancy O’Malley, Alameda county district attorney, said in a statement on Monday. “I have assigned a team of lawyers to look back into the circumstances that caused the death of Oscar Grant. We will evaluate the evidence and the law, including the applicable law at the time and the statute of limitations, and make a determination.”
A report released last year under a new California police transparency law disclosed that another transit officer on scene that night had repeatedly lied to investigators and had punched Grant without justification. That Bart officer, Anthony Pirone, “started a cascade of events that ultimately led to the shooting”, including calling Grant the N-word while detaining him and hitting him in the face, according to the report.
The report also cast doubt on Mehserle’s argument that he meant to draw his Taser and not his gun, noting that “enhanced video” suggested Mehserle was “intending to pull his firearm and not his Taser”.
Johnson says that his family has been waiting for the DA’s office to charge Pirone since Mehserle’s conviction. And after the 2019 report, combined with the fallout over the death of George Floyd, the family decided “it was time”.
“There would be no killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor if we paid attention to what happened to Oscar in 2009,” Johnson said. “Now this reopening is a whole new flashpoint that will reverberate all across this nation.”
Adante Pointer, an attorney for Grant’s family, said while he was happy that the district attorney was reopening the investigation, he questioned why it took her more than decade – and calls from the community and national protests around police killings – to take action. While murder charges have no time limit, lesser charges such assault, assault with a deadly weapon, or battery all have statutes of limitations that have most likely run out in this case, Pointer said.
“Is this political theater or is this serious criminal prosecution that is being considered?” he asked. “Any good lawyer would know that many of the charges that could have easily been brought have ostensibly now been swept away by the sands of time. She once again sat on her hands until the community demanded action.”